Published Humanitas, Volume X, No. 2, 1997
The Eikones of Philostratus the Elder has been viewed as literature, iconographical source, document and monument of the ancient world. It is treated as both something to investigate and something to help us investigate. Yet perhaps the most remarkable quality of the Eikones is its ability through ekphrasis (description) to compel the reader to create images. If the initial response to the power of the ekphrasis is to formulate in the mind the works of art Philostratus describes, the end result of this process is the attempt by artists to reconstruct the paintings.
The term ‘ekphrasis’ is the focus of many different and competing views, with the result that it is as difficult to define as it is important for us to try to do so. The aim of this essay, however, is not to donate yet another redefinition of ekphrasis but rather to look at one particular manifestation of it, the Eikones of Philostratus the Elder. In particular, I am interested in the way the descriptions have been visualized by artists and why publishers of the Eikones have sought to illustrate the text. Examining aspects of how this ancient text was received by readers roughly from the time of the first printed edition in 15031 to the present day, I hope to explain more precisely the impetus behind visualization.
Renaissance artists indulged in reconstructions of a number of the presumably Graeco-Roman paintings Philostratus describes, and this flirtation with recreating the gallery was consummated in a lavish fully illustrated translation of the Eikones published in 1614.2 I think this profound ‘reflex to illustrate’ the Eikones is brought about by two impelling forces: the inevitable psychological process of mental imaging of the ekphraseis and, secondly, the desire to identify with our classical past. The Eikones is translated and transmuted time and time again by those who wish to ‘recapture’ antiquity.
The animated nature and evocative properties of the ekphraseis lead the mind of the reader to devour and incorporate what it reads, resulting in a true self-creation. As Philostratus’s Narcissus (I.23) is convinced by his reflection that the other Narcissus exists, so the readers of Philostratus forget that the paintings exist only in their imaginations and come to believe in the actual existence of these paintings. Philostratus exploits the power of his ekphraseis to make real the paintings, for he keeps juggling with the ambiguity of viewing a naturalistic representation and confusing what is painted with what is real. This game of deception points not merely to the skill of the artist but to his own skill as a rhetorician in playing on the emotions of his audience. In Menoeceus (I.4) he tells the boy beside him to catch the blood of the hero who is dying as it comes flowing out of the picture and to hear the death cry. His continual appeal to the senses lulls the reader into a hyper-realistic ambience that prods the subconscious into manufacturing the paintings. In Erotes (I.6) he goads his audience into believing they smell the garden by saying they are ‘dull’ if they cannot catch the fragrance. This constant haranguing to be alert, to stretch the imagination, forces the listener/reader to participate in the moment described and not only to enter the text but to enter the picture.
The ekphrasis entices those who encounter Philostratus to take the abstract and make it material. I have chosen to examine this metamorphosis by looking at visual representations of one description from the Eikones, the Erotes (I.6).
Relatively few of Philostratus’s scenes provided appropriate subjects for paintings in the Renaissance, involving as they did incredibly intricate compositions often containing multiple episodes relating obscure literary themes. The Erotes is a difficult composition with a large cast of characters engaged in diverse actions, but it is a pleasant theme giving the artist the chance to paint a plethora of nude cupids in an apple orchard. Philostratus calls Erotes an ‘enigma’ (ainigma) but then proceeds confidently to divulge the subject as depicting the three stages of Love: desire, consummation, and repentance.3 The fact that the Erotes has no obvious literary source, unlike most of the descriptions in the Eikones, so that it can just be appreciated by any viewer as a ‘charming scene’, may explain its enduring popularity with artists.
Yet, just as translation alters irrevocably the Greek text and context of Philostratus, so, too, any artist’s effort to match the complexity of the ‘verbal pictures’ it contains will alter the Eikones. The purest representation of Erotes available to us remains in the ekphrasis. Even if the artist should be conscious of this fact, it does not deter him from attempting to resurrect the painting that Philostratus ‘saw’ on the wall of a third century A.D. Neapolitan gallery, for Titian’s Worship of Venus is a slavish realization of the text. Undoubtedly the most celebrated rendition of the Erotes, Titian’s painting was originally commissioned by Duke Alfonso I d’Este at Ferrara from Fra Bartolommeo. The commission was passed on to Titian in 1517 upon the friar’s death.4 Even though it is evident Titian knew the text well, his interpretation of Graeco-Roman painting is more revealing of the mind of an Italian artist of the sixteenth century than it is of what we have now found on ancient Campanian walls. From an enlightened twentieth-century viewpoint, the Worship of Venus has all the wrong associations for us. Titian’s reading of Philostratus is conditioned by a set of aesthetic values homogeneous to Titian’s own cultural climate. Unable to escape from the time in which he lived, Titian has placed picturesque country cottages in the landscape and a church spire on the horizon. Rather than attempting to interpret Philostratus from an archaeological or historical point of view, Titian’s approach is thus philological and the Worship of Venus relies on the ekphrasis as a guide to Titian’s own artistic creativity.5
Yet by recreating this painting he not only is responding to the power of the ekphrasis but is consciously establishing a link between himself and the ancient masters who painted the pictures in Philostratus’s Neapolitan gallery. This is typical of a Renaissance tendency to see its own civilization as the direct continuation of the classical past as opposed to standing at a fixed distance from antiquity.
Alfonso d’Este himself had devised the programme for the decoration of his camerino d’Alabastro at Ferrara which included reconstructions of descriptions of works of art from Ovid and Catullus as well as Philostratus.6 The rehabilitation of ancient, especially Greek, texts was a preoccupation during this period, not only of humanists like Aldus who published over a hundred editions of Greek and Latin texts between 1495 and 1515, but also of educated nobles like the d’Este. Demetrios Moschos had made a personal Italian translation of the Eikones for Isabella d’Este to which Titian probably had access.7
Such interests were indicative of an overall desire to revisit the classical world, a rinascimento dell’Antichità. As early as ca. 1350 Petrarch had hoped that future generations would be able to ‘walk back into the pure radiance of the past’, and Philostratus became a vehicle through which this could be achieved.8
There is a sense of immediacy in Philostratus that facilitates the mind’s journey from one’s own era to the third century after Christ and beyond to a mythical Greek past. Even though we are provided with minimal information about his physical surroundings, we still are able to walk through an ancient gallery with a Greek sophist and ‘view’ sixty-five lost Graeco-Roman paintings. Philostratus himself is revisiting a classical Greek past by choosing exclusively Greek themes for the Eikones, and his nostalgia for this ‘golden’ past permeates the descriptions.
Philostratus’s canon of female beauty is fastidiously Greek: Andromeda ‘would surpass a Lydian girl in daintiness, an Attic girl in stateliness and a Spartan girl in sturdiness’ and of Rhodogoune’s most perfect mouth he says, ‘if we care to listen attentively, perhaps it will speak in Greek.’ 9
He even uses the Islands (II.17) to mention Lemnos, his patrida, when he invites the boy to embark upon a voyage with him through the painted sea and visit the Greek isles ‘as though we were sailing in and out among them in the spring-time’ 10 Philostratus is not only teaching his pupils ‘to interpret paintings and to appreciate what is esteemed in them’ 11 but he is also taking them on an imaginary journey into a world of Greek gods and heroes so that they may more easily learn about the Hellenic past.
The Roman Empire was founded on the ruins of the Hellenistic kingdom, and the concern to identify with a Greek classical past was as important then as it would be in Titian’s time. We can see this by the predominantly Greek subject matter of the paintings found at Pompeii and by Roman literary works such as Virgil’s Aeneid. But what is implicit in ekphraseis of the Eikones for the third-century listener is not likely to be the same for an artist of the sixteenth century. The descriptions have their existence only in the minds of the readers, so it is they, rather than Philostratus, who create the painting for their time. The idea that the scene is one of devotion before a goddess of love and fertility may have been more apparent to pagan Roman listeners than to Titian, for his cupids are self-absorbed in their various antics; they do not seem to be gathered around Aphrodite in prayer.12
Hence his painting is not a physical substitute for the textual image of Philostratus, but simply an object of individual experience. When we look at the Worship of Venus, we admire it not because it reminds us of a lost masterpiece from antiquity but because it is an impressive product of Renaissance art.
Giulio Romano was another artist who responded to the desire to revisit antiquity through Philostratus as he assimilated the Erotes into his art, resulting in several versions of the theme. His most earnest attempt to follow Philostratus is seen in a drawing dated ca. 1539, thought to be a modello for a lost fresco in the Palazzo Te at Mantua.13
Although the drawing relies heavily on Titian’s composition and is immediately recognizable as the scene in Aphrodite’s apple orchard described by Philostratus, Giulio has not followed Titian’s exemplar of fidelity to the text but has included several invenzione of his own. There is a satyr spying on Aphrodite, a lake in the distance, and, rather than wrestling with a hare, two cupids struggle with a serpent. The deliberate digressions from the text show that Giulio was only using Philostratus as a foundation for his own vision of antiquity and never intended to resurrect the painting described. He did not want to be viewed either as a copyist of Titian or of Philostratus. In this respect, he is using the Eikones in much the same way as he would utilise Fra Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Polyphili: as an iconographical source-book, with the essential difference that he had to rely on a literary description rather than a graphic one.
Annibale Carracci’s vision of the Erotes14 seems hardly to consider the text at all but presents a free interpretation. It is still possible to view this painting as a visual expression of the ekphrasis conveyed by Philostratus, but the spirit with which Titian approached the text is absent from both Giulio Romano’s and Carracci’s visualizations. By depicting a statue of Aphrodite, Titian pays attention to the Greek word hidrumenon (idrumenwn), which, although it does not mean ‘statue,’ implies something that is installed and erected. Ignoring this, the latter two paintings represent the goddess as a live reclining model. Carracci is primarily concerned with displaying the classical female nude, and it is possible that he drew more upon the work of his predecessors for iconographical inspiration than on the text itself.15
Had he wanted to purchase a copy of the Eikones to study in depth, it had been printed in at least five Latin editions by the end of the sixteenth century. The French humanist scholar Blaise de Vigenère had made the first translation into the vernacular, which included an extensivecommentary.16
What had been an obscure ancient text known to a select few began circulating amongst a wider audience. The culmination of this interest in Philostratus or, more specifically, in the Neapolitan Gallery he described, was the deluxe illustrated edition of de Vigenère’s French translation, Les images ou tableaux de platte-peinture de Philostrate, published posthumously in 1614. It is ironic that de Vigenère is best remembered for this edition, of which he probably would have disapproved if he had lived to see it printed. In the Epistre of his original 1578 non-illustratededition,17 de Vigenère states that he believes the material to be found in his translation not only is rich enough but includes many ‘belles fantaisies’ for artists to use as inspiration. He adds: ‘Moreover, alongside this are the arguments and annotations which I have included to serve as a framework that will help them more than a little. . . .’ 18 Clearly, de Vigenère did not deem illustrations necessary.
The illustrated edition, some sixteen years in the making, was not de Vigenère’s idea but that of its Parisian publisher, Abel l’Angelier. The preface is written by the publisher’s widow who justifies the inclusion of the illustrations with the following argument:
The widow l’Angelier tells how no expense was spared in seeking out the most talented painters and engravers to contribute their designs for the sixty-nine quarto sized plates that are reproduced. Besides the Eikones, the volume contains Philostratus the Elder’s Heroikos, the Eikones of Philostratus the Younger and ekphraseis of works of art by Callistratus.20
Antoine Caron, painter to the King at Fontainebleau, executed eight designs for l’Angelier before he died in 1599; the remainder were inventions of lesser known French and Flemish artists. The artist who illustrated the Erotes remains unidentified and his treatment of the subject is quite different from those previously mentioned. The cupids are no longer plump comical infants, but athletic well-developed boys, with one group offering the goddess first fruits of the orchard, as indicated in the text. Aphrodite is once more depicted as a statue in a shrine, albeit an elongated Mannerist goddess rather than a classically proportioned one. The composition has none of the crowded vivacity of Titian’s painting, for the artist has chosen to make the hare the centre of attention with the cupids forming a wide circle around it. The shift in focus reveals something about the way that ekphrasis works. For Titian, it was the impact of the opening sentences that caught his imagination when Philostratus emphasizes the great number of cupids: ‘See, Cupids are gathering apples; and if there are many of them, do not be surprised. For they are children of the Nymphs and govern all mortal kind, and they are many because of the many things men love.’ 21 For the artist of the de Vigenère translation, it was the invitation to the hunt—’And let not the hare yonder escape us, but let us join the Cupids in hunting it down’—which became pivotal to his design.22 No two realizations by separate artists of any one of the Eikones will be alike. Philostratus is ‘decoding’ the iconography and interpreting it to his pupils, but the artists must do the reverse, they must reconstruct in their minds what he disassembles. Realizing the abstract images that are expressed in the text, the artist is led by an intuitive perception of Philostratus.
Our own attitude reflects our own aesthetic experiences within our own historical situation; hence, the Baroque age reviewed and restored the Eikones largely in its own image. Page after page of the 1614 edition is redolent with imagery that reflects the trends in art at the time and even the annotations to the text give a seventeenth-century gloss to the sixteenth-century translation of de Vigenère. Thus, the contemporary readers and viewers of this book received a version of antiquity of which they approved.
The 1614 edition was further tailored to accommodate its public by the inclusion of moralistic epigrams. In illustrating Philostratus, whom the publisher criticizes as being ‘more lascivious’ than necessary in some of his descriptions, l’Angelier is incongruously concerned that the images, more than the text, will offend. The epigrams are introduced as
R. Dautant que ce fruict là represente leurs charmes.
D. Et ce lievre qui fuit & qui a tant de peur?
R. C’est qu’un homme lascif ne peut avoir de coeur.D. But why are they taking the apples for their weapons?
R. Because the fruit represents their charms.
D. And this hare which has fled and is so frightened?
R. This means that a lascivious man cannot have a heart.24
De Vigenère’s preoccupations in his translation are revealed by the twelve pages of Argument that accompany the two-page translation of Erotes. He begins with Plutarch’s definition of love and moves on to the iconological meaning of the apples, arrows, quivers and wings of Eros. Porphyry, Plutarch and Lucian are then quoted on the three stages of Love and the symbolism of the hare.
The painting has been accepted by de Vigenère as ‘real’ and becomes the focus of the discussion rather than Philostratus himself and the text he wrote. De Vigenère is mostly concerned with deciphering the iconology which allows for liberal interaction with antique literary sources. This format is followed throughout the translation and it is easy to criticize the whole as an elaborate display of personal erudition. De Vigenère is first and foremost a classicist and his concerns are neither for art criticism nor for the history of art. For him, Philostratus is an instrument to explore the classics: specifically Greek mythology, Homeric themes, and ancient philosophy. Such an approach is not unusual if one considers the Renaissance tradition of humanistic scholarship from which de Vigenère, born in 1523, emerged.25 Never has anyone led such a highly sophisticated discussion into the iconology and literary sources of the Eikones. De Vigenère’s aim was surely to raise the Eikones to the highest level of antique literature, something which later translations do not pretend to do.
The illustrated de Vigenère was a commercial success and some eight editions were published in the seventeenth century. It remained the standard French translation of the Eikones until Auguste Bougot set about to correct what he saw as de Vigenère’s ‘fort inexacte’ translation in 1881.26 It is a curious fact that whilst Greek editions of the Eikones continued to be published without illustrations, since de Vigenère, translations of the text were mostly illustrated.27 This suggests that publishers believe readers of the Greek text are looking for different things from Philostratus than those who read translations.
Although another full-scale attempt to illustrate the Eikones with artists’ impressions was never carried out,28 the discoveries made at Pompeii, Herculaneum and surrounding sites since the early eighteenth century meant that translators could now draw on a wide range of archaeological sources to illustrate Philostratus.
In his preface Bougot concentrates heavily on the debate over the authenticity of the gallery and, wherever possible, cites antique examples that correspond to the text. His translation may well be answering the nineteenth century call for a closer examination of Philostratus coming as it does, at the denouement of the famous debate on the authenticity of the gallery between the German classicists, Friederichs and Brunn.29 That debate was revived in the next century with K. Lehmann-Hartleben believing wholeheartedly in the historical existence of the gallery and setting out to prove it with a systematic reconstruction.30
As in de Vigenère, Bougot’s commentary far outweighs the text. In the case of Erotes three pages of translation are supplemented by five pages of commentary which include a discussion on the validity of the illustration he uses, a drawing variously attributed either to Raphael or to Giulio Romano.31 The drawing is criticized by Bougot for not strictly following the text: ‘Again he (Raphael) has modified the sentiment and the subject to suit himself. All the allegorical meaning has disappeared: these are children who play with each other; nothing more.’ 32
Bougot’s inclusion of Raphael’s drawing for the Erotes is an anomaly amongst the ‘archaeologically correct’ images he uses and reflects the contemporary opinion of the Academies that Raphael, author of paintings such as The School of Athens and Parnassus, was the best interpreter of antiquity in the visual arts.33
After the advent of photography, translators of the Eikones were able to provide ‘hard evidence’ as they placed photographic images side by side with the text. The 1931 English translation by Arthur Fairbanks features photographic reproductions of antique sculpture and vase paintings; but, curiously, Campanian wall paintings are only represented by archaeological sketches. Erotes is illustrated with a sketch of a sarcophagus relief with cupids boxing and wrestling, an object which reappears in the 1968 German translation by Kalinka and Schönberger alongside a photograph of a wall painting from Pompeii with cupids hunting.34
Does this ongoing concern to match existing images of antiquity to the descriptions of Philostratus indicate a subconscious need to authenticate the Eikones? What really is the aim of Bougot, Fairbanks, and Kalinka-Schönberger in illustrating Philostratus in this manner, and how does it differ from the artist’s reflex to recreate the paintings?
The Eikones is problematic because the reader’s interest in the text is upstaged by the interest in the phantasia it provokes. Philostratus is describing panel pictures (pinakwn), which are solid objects; the element of form is thus present in every description and there is no way to avoid visualizing this form. Artists’ impressions are irrational and so do not appeal to editors who have a cartesian approach and tend to treat the Eikones as a source of archaeological data.35 Nevertheless editors are responding to the urge to illustrate when they include images in their publications. To the extent that they provide supporting visual evidence because they want to believe the paintings existed and not just because an illustrated translation has more commercial appeal, the editors’ motives are unified with those of the artist who restoresPhilostratus.36 The artist, however, is distinct from the historian in that he responds to an affinity with the ancient masters who are responsible for the gallery of pictures.
It could be argued that the very nature of the Eikones, which is subjective, inventive, almost oeniric, lends itself to illustration inspired by artistic fantasy. These illustrations, in their idealistic style and form, evoke the visionary descriptions Philostratus gives us, where all paintings are masterpieces, in which figures try to speak and escape the frames. At one point, the painter of the Horae fell into his own painting and ‘was caught up by them into their dance.’ 37 The imaginary world that the Eikones creates as a whole may have more affiliation with Antoine Caron’s ‘fantastic antiquity’ than with the reality of Roman wall paintings. It is perhaps for this reason that the most recently published translation of the Eikones has reverted to using artists’ inventions.38
Our minds, we like to think, are no longer soggy with unacknowledged subjective responses. We have escaped from that state of innocence which led the Renaissance to embrace the reality of the gallery and lament the loss of so many fine paintings in favor of a more complex appreciation of Philostratus. Yet the 1991 edition of the Eikones, an edited version of Bougot’s nineteenth-century translation, cannot resist the urge to illustrate. The tradition has come full circle, for the editor has chosen not to furnish his edition with an up-to-date catalogue of archaeological finds but employs the Late Mannerist/Baroque vocabulary supplied by the illustrations of de Vigenère’s translation.
The problem with publishing any illustrated version of the Eikones is that the creative role of the reader is almost ignored. In ‘restoring’ Philostratus’s lost gallery to the world, the whole ekphrasic nature of the Eikones is destroyed, which surely is antithetic to Philostratus’s intentions. In Scamander Philostratus instructs his pupils to ‘turn your eyes away from the painting itself so as to look only at the events on which it is based.’ 39 He is saying that the phantasia created by Homer’s familiar words provides enough stimulus to create one’s own mental picture of the narrative and that the image their eyes take in is secondary to their understanding of it. We could transpose these instructions to the Eikones and ask the readers of illustrated editions to ‘turn your eyes away from the plates so as to listen to or read only Philostratus.’
The danger with including illustrations in a publication of the Eikones is that the process of repetitive viewing makes the illustration become synonymous with the description. This problem of association between text and image can result in a misleading notion of antiquity. In effect, the ekphraseis now become descriptions not of Hellenistic or Graeco-Roman paintings but of the images illustrating the publication. This is particularly true of the 1614 edition of de Vigenère’s translation.
Although intended to guide the reader to a more realistic association with the images Philostratus describes, the antique fragments and damaged wall paintings used in modern publications are also misleading. How can a fifth century B.C. attic pottery shard justifiably elucidate the complete vision of a panel painting described by a third century A.D. Sophist?
The popularization of painted images identified with Philostratus similarly impinges upon a reader’s objectivity. How many art historians reading Erotes would simultaneously picture Titian’s famous painting in their minds? The Eikones is thus a victim of its own tendency to activate the process of reconstruction. There shall always be the temptation to look for paradigmatic representations from the material world, even by those who are ambivalent about the existence of the gallery, as validated by the 1931 Fairbanksedition.40
Treating the Eikones as a primary art historical source by attempting to correlate these verbal paintings to archaeological evidence is futile, for these are emotional as distinct from analytical descriptions. Philostratus does not present history but rather embellishes the historical record. He says as much himself: ‘If we examine this scene as a drama, my boy, a great tragedy has been enacted in a brief space of time, but if as a painting, you will see more in it than a drama.’ 41 Applying the same syllogism, if Philostratus had wanted simply to record pictures in a Neapolitan Gallery, he would not have needed to use ekphrasis in the manner he did, with constant digressions and literary cross-references. He would not have had to make it philosophical and ‘entertaining,’ as opposed to plainly instructive. As long as we try to force a genuine visual source onto Philostratus, we are perpetrating a catachresis of the Eikones because what mattered to Philostratus as a sophistic writer was that the paintings he described should be conceivable but that words alone should be able to convey them. Philostratus has challenged the skilled craft of the painter with his own art as a rhetorician. Ekphrasis as practised by Philostratus is aimed at making the reader feel he is seeing a painting—whether an actual or a fictitious one does not matter. Judging from the way the Eikones has been materialized throughout history, and continues to be illustrated, his aim was successful.
I have concentrated on illustrations that appear alongside the text in publications because I think this juxtaposition emphasizes more intensely the compulsive leap from the intangible to representation. However, this does not mean to say that artists’ representations ended with the 1614 edition of de Vigenère. I have cited just six reconstructions of one description alone, but Poussin, Rubens,42 Coypel and others continued to recreate their own versions of Philostratus’s Erotes and selected descriptions from the Eikones.
Nevertheless, the 1614 de Vigenère translation seems best to embody the reflex to illustrate the Eikones. The work embodies a total compulsion not only to recapture antiquity via visualization but to see French culture as a continuation of the classical world, clearly propounded by pendant images of Paris and Athens on the title page.
It is a paradox that would have appealed to Philostratus as a Sophist that the proof of his consummate ability to make the pictures conceivable lies in the great body of visual representation that the Eikones has inspired. The created image is inseparable from personal and, by extension, cultural perception. Thus, as Aby Warburg observed, “Each age gets the antiquity it deserves.” Still, there is continuity in perpetual change as the rhetoric works not only upon the imagination but upon the will of the reader until our perceptions become those of the author. Objectivity is an illusion, and it is by no means unnatural that we shall continue to inhabit Philostratus’s world.